by Ed Smith
When The Community Builders Inc. (TCB) — a leading nonprofit real estate developer, owner, and manager of affordable and mixed-income housing decided to renovate all of the units at Leyden Woods in Greenfield, Mass., one of their biggest concerns was how to execute the project with as little disruption as possible to the lives of the families who live there while minimizing relocation expenses. Modular construction proved to be a good solution to the problem.
TCB, together with Delphi Construction, knew at the outset they would face a considerable challenge employing a traditional construction approach on such a time-sensitive, occupied construction project, the scope of which included the teardown and new construction of 49 buildings and 200 units spread over eight courts.
Zan Bross, the director of design and construction for TCB overseeing the project, noted, “As a team, we believed that a well-designed, well-constructed, and well-managed modular execution could deliver the speed and efficiency necessary to meet our compressed time table while delivering a final product that would strengthen the neighborhood.”
That belief was well-founded. The project, which broke ground in the fall of 2015, has just entered its eighth and final court, with 35 buildings already completed to date. Residents of six courts have already moved back into their new units. The $78 million project is ahead of schedule and will wrap up the remaining 14 buildings by the spring of 2017.
The Community Builders brought in Davis Square Architects of Somerville, Mass., to handle the design. Civil engineering was provided by Stantec. Delphi Construction of Waltham and Cape Cod, Mass., managed construction. The fourth key contributor in this case was the manufacturer of the state-of-the-art modular units themselves: Simplex Homes of Scranton, Pa., a firm that has been pioneering modular manufacturing for 45 years.
For other developers who may be considering a modular approach, Bross emphasized the importance of putting together the right team of partners.
“All construction projects depend on the ability of the constituents to work well together, but this is greatly heightened in the case of modular projects. It’s vital that the chosen partners be not only highly capable in their own right but that they can also function exceptionally well as a team.”
Joe Mastromatteo of Delphi Construction concurred with Bross’ view and credits a combination of careful planning, good communication, and a team-oriented mindset for the success of the Leyden Woods project.
“The challenges of modular construction are unique. You have buildings being designed in one state, permitted and built to order in another, and shipped in by truck exactly when needed. This requires a tremendous amount of coordination between the architect, the manufacturer, our project development team, and our crews in the field throughout all phases of construction. Above all, it is critical to work out every detail of the plan from the beginning. Many of these activities are being executed months in advance, so the discovery of any needed changes may affect something that already happened months ago,” Mastromatteo said.
Mastromatteo pointed out there are other factors that construction managers on modular projects need to take into consideration which are not issues on built-in-place projects, such as the effects of shipping.
“With partners like Davis Square Architects and Simplex Homes, we could be certain that the units left the facility as designed and in pristine condition, but 300 miles on the road can take its toll. We implemented rigorous quality control measures onsite before setting any piece in place. These included infrared scans to check for water infiltration and insulation voids, additional testing of all mechanical systems, and a variety of other inspection processes.”
On the design side, architects need to bring a special touch to modular projects. Davis Square Architects’ Kevin Mowatt is the job captain on the project and commented on the approach demanded by modular construction.
“As a design and planning studio working in multiple sectors, Davis Square Architects has a mission to produce excellent design, build sustainable communities, and deliver attentive, affordable service to our clients. This holds true whether the project is traditional construction or modular. While there are certain inherent design limitations when working with what is essentially just a series of boxes, skilled architects with creative vision can utilize these components to create a space that leverages economies of material and scale while being highly functional and aesthetically pleasing.”
Mowatt emphasized the importance of working closely with the manufacturer to ensure that every detail in the architectural plans and specifications is captured and faithfully carried into manufacturing.
“Architects typically do not have such an entwined relationship with subcontractors, but in modular construction, the manufacturer must become an integrated part of the design team from the earliest stages, and the architect must be closely involved and highly communicative during the manufacturing process,” Mowatt said.
TCB is more than pleased with the end result in all regards, including aesthetics, energy efficiency, and most importantly, a welcoming new home for the residents of the Leyden Woods community
“One of the concerns some people have with modular construction is that it may end up looking blocky or feel box-like. This is an outdated misconception. This project proves that with a creative design team working collaboratively with the manufacturer, that simply does not have to be the case. Each unit at Leyden Woods has a very natural flow, each building is visually distinctive and interesting, and each court has its own cohesive design that really brings it all together as a neighborhood yet respects the vernacular style of this rural community,” Bross said.”
In addition to the speed and efficiency factor of modern modular construction, there is also an undeniable sustainability benefit to the technology, according to Simplex Homes vice president, Dave Boniello.
“We like to say that as a company, we were green before it was cool. We demonstrate our commitment to sustainability both on the manufacturing side and in the units themselves. Modular building is inherently green in that there is far less waste, but we take this to the next level by relentlessly recycling at every possible opportunity, including drywall cutoffs, wire, copper and aluminum. The Leyden Woods units are all Energy Star-certified and represent state-of-the-art energy conservation, from the insulative panels and blown-in cellulose to green construction materials and energy-efficient fixtures. These modular units are designed to reduce energy use and resource consumption at every turn.”
Boniello also sees the Leyden Woods project as a showcase for modular construction and a good indication of the direction multifamily construction may be — and in his view, should be — headed.
“Leyden Woods is our largest project to date, but I don’t think it will hold that record for long. I may be a little biased, but I believe that given the obvious benefits of modular in terms of speed of construction, energy efficiency, design flexibility, and value delivered to the client, that modular will only continue to gain in popularity as the construction method of choice in multifamily residential and other markets as well. With partners like Delphi Construction and Davis Square Architects and highly satisfied clients like The Community Builders, I think the future of modular construction looks very bright indeed.”
Ed Smith is the marketing and communications director at Delphi Construction Inc.